The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth's Rarest Creatures

The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth's Rarest Creatures

by William DeBuys

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Overview

The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth's Rarest Creatures by William DeBuys

An award-winning author's quest to find and understand a creature as rare and enigmatic as any on Earth

In 1992, in a remote mountain range, a team of scientists discovered the remains of an unusual animal with exquisite long horns. It turned out to be a living species new to Western science—a saola, the first large land mammal discovered in fifty years.

Rare then and rarer now, a live saola had never been glimpsed by a Westerner in the wild when Pulitzer Prize finalist and nature writer William deBuys and conservation biologist William Robichaud set off to search for it in central Laos. Their team endured a punishing trek up and down white-water rivers and through mountainous terrain ribboned with the snare lines of armed poachers who roamed the forest, stripping it of wildlife.

In the tradition of Bruce Chatwin, Colin Thubron, and Peter Matthiessen, The Last Unicorn chronicles deBuys's journey deep into one of the world's most remote places. It's a story rich with the joys and sorrows of an expedition into undiscovered country, pursuing a species as rare and elusive as the fabled unicorn. As is true with the quest for the unicorn, in the end the expedition becomes a search for something more: the essence of wildness in nature, evidence that the soul of a place can endure, and the transformative power of natural beauty.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780316232869
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: 03/10/2015
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

William deBuys is the author of eight books, including River of Traps, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a Pulitzer Prize nonfiction finalist; Enchantment and Exploitation; The Walk (an excerpt of which won a Pushcart Prize in 2008); and A Great Aridness. An active conservationist, deBuys lives in New Mexico.

Read an Excerpt

The Last Unicorn

A Search for One of Earth's Rarest Creatures


By William deBuys

Little, Brown and Company

Copyright © 2015 William deBuys
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-316-23286-9



CHAPTER 1

Entry


February 24

Nam Theun Reservoir

We strike out across the drowned forest in a narrow, battered launch that draws no water except when heavily laden, as it now is with our camp gear and food. A white sky silvers the surface of the water. We squat in silence among the bundles, wrapped like Bedouins against the sun. There is no point in talking. The chainsaw racket of the engine drones tonelessly, incessantly.

Our quarry is an animal known only in a small, remote patch of the planet, an animal known mainly for being unknown. We have no idea if we will find it. The odds, we know, are against us.

The boatman steers through treetops that puncture the surface of the reservoir, down lanes known only to him. We skim the forest at bird level, scraping the edges of canopies whose branches supplicate the sky in a final leafless gesture. We pass a copse of bamboo, its stems arcing upward like antennae. The woody shafts dance and clatter in our wake. Farther along rises a solitary dipterocarp, a hardwood tree considered majestic even by the standards of this timber-rich region. Its thick trunk is charred by fire from years earlier, before the forest was drowned. I shout a question to Robichaud. He yells back, "Not much lightning around here. Probably villagers collecting resin started that one, and it got away from them."

Robichaud sits against a bag of rice in the bow, binoculars at the ready. A rule of expeditions like this one holds that the best observer goes first in line, on water or on land. You never know what you might see. Maybe the next bird in the sky is the last white-winged duck in central Laos. Maybe it's a fish eagle never before reported for this particular place. Maybe you will have no more than a second to bring up the glasses and make the ID. For the habitat where we are headed, you can count on a carpenter's hand the other people in the world who might have a quicker or more knowledgeable eye than Robichaud, and none of them is in the boat. Robichaud has been wandering the forests on the far side of this lake for decades. We are days away from saola habitat, but he is tense with pleasure on this morning of new beginning. Behind him in the boat, I see only his back, but he is sitting as straight and attentive as a bird dog on its way to a hunt.

I am next in line, assigned to a low, bare thwart, vainly seeking comfort among the backpacks and bundles piled fore and aft. There is no extra room and precious little freeboard. The boat is tippy, easily rocked. I am learning that if I stretch out a knee, my back soon complains; if I bring in my leg and lean back, the knee begins to ache. The only thing to do is move the pain from place to place.

We have two, maybe three hours to cross the reservoir and ply our way upstream along a narrow river to Ban Makfeuang. Ban means "place" or "village." Makfeuang, to me, is indecipherable, a mouthful of sound without meaning. I have never been there, nor, I imagine, anyplace like it. From Ban Makfeuang, we will hike some hours to another village, Ban Tong, where we hope to hire other boats to take us up a second river to Ban Nameuy, beyond which we will sleep in the forest. The names of these places sit on my tongue like the seeds of an exotic fruit. I do not know whether to swallow them or spit them out.

Behind me, side by side on another thwart, are the boys, Olay and Touy, both of them Lao. They are not boys, really, but young men, one just out of university, the other in his last semesters, though both are younger than my own children. Jammed together in the narrow boat, they have zipped their rain jackets to the chin, although there is no threat of rain. They are as new to each other as they are to me, and it is good to see in their glances and gestures that they are becoming friends. While Touy hails from a royal family of prerevolutionary Laos, Olay is the son of a man born with no social advantages. Now they pass a small camera back and forth and smile modestly when I twist around to look at them.

Behind the boys is Simeuang—lithe, athletic, and ever smiling. Also Lao, he is nearly as young as they are yet possesses a soft and centered gravitas. His presence makes our journey official—and permissible. Hailing from Pakxe, a city on the Mekong River in the south of Laos, he works for the Watershed Management and Protection Authority, the WMPA, which came into being as part of the colossal hydropower project that inundated the forest and created the reservoir we are traversing. The WMPA decrees what may and may not be done in the forests on the far side of the reservoir, which stretch away to a mountainous, cloud-hung horizon we cannot see, past which lies Vietnam. These forests are rich with wildlife and also with people.

Last of all is the boatman, whose face, shrouded by a towel he drapes beneath his hat, is as grave as Charon's. The din of the engine hammers upon him; the long tiller vibrates in his hand. His work is to ferry people and their freight from the dusty town of Nakai, possessed of electricity and a cacophonous market, across the glassy lake and up its tributaries to villages that perch on sandy riverbanks, their houses built on stilts even where floods are not in prospect. These are the homes of "hill tribes," in the terminology of an earlier time; the people of the villages are nowadays—and no more helpfully—referred to as "ethnics" or "ethnic people."

The boat that carries us is a blunt-nosed pirogue, about twenty-five feet long, with a squared stern, where the engine hangs. In design, it is a direct descendant of the dugout canoe, good for navigating the twists and turns of shallow rivers. Sturdy planks have replaced the tree trunk of the original, and a gasoline engine endows the new creation with speed, commotion, and a name: this kind of craft is called a chak hang, which translates as "motor tail," a term that aptly describes the long driveshaft slanting backwards from the engine, which ends in a two-bladed propeller hardly bigger than your hand. The shallow slant of the driveshaft keeps the propeller only barely submerged, the better to avoid the rocks and sandbars of the riverbeds. When the boatman opens the throttle, the engine screams, and the prop shoots up a gleaming rooster tail of water, which is the first thing you see when you sight a chak hang at a distance.

Once upon a time, certainly years before the dam was closed and the forest flooded, our chak hang sported a handsome coat of royal-blue paint, which age and abrasion have since faded to the color of worn-out jeans. The color seems not so much painted on the boat as infused into the fibers of its wood. Were an artist to paint this scene, with its hard-boiled sky, the mirroring water, and forlorn treetops, the weathered boat would give the canvas its only life. Chased by our rooster tail of spray, we are a lone dash of color advancing into the dissolving distance. Soon we, too, will be absorbed by the hazy land.


* * *

As the trees grow fewer in number, the watery prairie opens. The reservoir has now deepened past the height of even the tallest dipterocarps; or, more likely, the trees that used to grow here were felled and hauled to a sawmill before the waters came. In the shimmering distance, the outline of a wooded shore begins to emerge.

The river that was dammed to form the lake is the Nam Theun. Nam means "water," also "river." Saying "Nam Theun River" is redundant, like saying "Rio Grande River." Theun, in one reading, expresses a wry humor. The word is ancient, coined by some long-vanished ethnic group, and its original meaning may have vanished with them. Among the subsequent connotations that have attached to it over the centuries are "opposite-flowing" and even "wrong way." Nam Theun: Wrong Way River. Before it was drowned, the Nam Theun flowed roughly northwest across the Nakai Plateau, a direction opposite that of the region's other major rivers, which trend southeastward, including the great Mekong, sixty kilometers to the west. The Mekong marks most of the boundary between Thailand and Laos. Or not Laos: officially we are in the Lao People's Democratic Republic—Lao PDR. Along with China, Vietnam, North Korea, and Cuba, it is one of the world's last self-described Communist governments.

Past where the Nam Theun spills from the plateau and bends west to flow into the Mekong, it changes its name. It becomes the Nam Kading. Kading: the sound of a pretty bell, although this is probably another false etymology. Many place names in Laos go deep in time, bringing a sense of romance and lyricism to the present. By no means are all of them, or even a majority of them, derived from the Lao language. Lao PDR's 6.5 million people, by most counts, are divided among more than 150 distinct ethnicities, speaking scores of different languages. As a result, Laos is one of the world's most culturally heterogeneous nations. Perhaps nowhere else on the planet is extraordinary biological diversity so well matched by ethnic and linguistic variety.

Days earlier, on our way from Vientiane, the capital, to the frontier town of Nakai, we stopped just short of the bridge over the mouth of the Nam Kading and visited a roadhouse. It was just Robichaud, the boys, and me; we would rendezvous with Simeuang later in Nakai. The boys got soft drinks, and Robichaud and I bought cans of chilled coffee and bags of Thai snack food. Then Robichaud disappeared next door. He came back with a half dozen oranges that were the size of limes and almost as green. They looked unappetizing, and I wondered why he had bought them. A few hundred meters down the road, as we approached the bridge over the Nam Kading, he passed them out. It is important, he explained, to make an offering to the river spirits as you cross the river. You give them something, and maybe you get good fortune in return. "Try not to hit any fishermen," he added. And so as our vehicle sped across the bridge, we rolled down the windows and pitched the little oranges over the railing. The water—and any fishermen—lay far below. We could not see where our offerings landed, but I confess I did not think about fishermen—the river gods were much more on my mind. I prayed for the kiss of luck. On the trek that lay before us, it would be a welcome thing, perhaps essential.


The Nakai Plateau, now submerged beneath our boat, was once legendary for its beauty and wildlife. Lao princes and the French colonialists who succeeded them hunted its tigers from the backs of elephants. Unspoiled forests of dipterocarps and stately pines resounded with the gabble of monkeys, the ethereal hoots of gibbons, and the chatter of birds of every hue. Rhinos snorted in the wetlands. Herds of elephants and wild cattle—banteng and gaur (which would dwarf an American bison)—and the rare and regal Eld's deer grew fat in the savannas.

Years before the dam was conceived, but still in living memory, the tigers and rhinos were largely hunted out, and the herds of wild cattle had dwindled. Even so, the grand forests and nearly all their lesser denizens remained.

That such a land should be drowned for a tepid reservoir is a function of three things: the thirst of the world (in this case, Thailand) for electricity, the hunger of Laos for foreign currency, and the confidence, questionable though it may be, of the highest echelon of the globe's economic and financial mavens that a defensible balance of loss and gain might be devised. (Flood control, a common rationale for the building of dams, did not apply.) The masters of the global economy determined to trade the wonders of the Nakai Plateau for the commensurate glories of the sprawling mountain slopes that drain into it, sacrificing the former for the assured protection of the latter. Those slopes are the land to which we are headed—the upper watershed of the Nam Theun, which lies beyond the lake and stretches eastward for many kilometers to the crest of the Annamite Mountains and the border with Vietnam. Designated the Nakai–Nam Theun National Protected Area, it is a patch of planet as pristine as any in Southeast Asia, naturally rife with wildlife, rich in aboriginal culture, and dense with undiscovered marvels. At more than four thousand square kilometers (1,544 square miles), the Nakai–Nam Theun watershed is either the largest or among the two or three largest protected areas (depending on who is doing the counting) in all of Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia—the region the French called Indochina.

Of course, the wonders of Nakai–Nam Theun have existed through the ages. Exchanging development for preservation does not bring them into being. The purpose of the trade was to make possible the actual protection of those wonders, which were otherwise considered doomed by the usual forces of exploitation. Before the dam came along, Nakai–Nam Theun already enjoyed special status as a "national biodiversity conservation area," but it was a park only on paper, like so many others in the developing world. It received little in the way of management or funding to defend it from hunters, chain saws, and bulldozers.

Development offered an alternative. With cash from a giant hydropower project to fund the watershed's defense, all that would change. Nakai–Nam Theun, it was promised, would be actively patrolled and protected. A dedicated stream of revenue—roughly one million dollars a year, adjusted for inflation—taken from the sale of the electricity would be directed to protecting the environment and to improving the social and economic well-being of people living in the affected area. A new agency, the Watershed Management and Protection Authority—Simeuang's employer—would come into being to achieve those goals.

This time around—and by many reckonings, for the first time ever—a large-scale, internationally funded hydropower project would be done right. Multiple levels of checks and balances would assure quality and accountability, making the project corruption-free, compassionate to native people, and environmentally conscious. The World Bank and its peer agencies were acutely aware that virtually all the large hydropower projects they had funded in the past had produced environmental and cultural calamity. In the wilds of central Laos, they would start afresh and produce a new model for the world. In funding one of the largest construction projects then under way on the planet, they would demonstrate how economic development and environmental protection might be made not just compatible but synergistic.

The construction cost of the Nam Theun 2 Hydroelectric Project, or NT2, as it came to be known, ultimately reached $1.3 billion. Construction began in 2005 and involved as many as eight thousand workers on-site. NT2's army of laborers built two main dams and fourteen saddle dams (to keep water from spilling off the side of the plateau), plus two power stations, ten bridges, six kilometers of tunnels and shafts, and 140 kilometers of roads. They also erected 180 kilometers of high-voltage transmission lines, batched half a million cubic meters of concrete, and installed ten thousand tons of steel. The gates of the dam finally closed in 2008.

NT2 has a capacity of 1,070 megawatts, which puts it in the big leagues of world hydroelectric generation but not at the highest level. (Hoover Dam, on the Colorado River, for example, has a capacity almost twice as great, and the largest individual projects in India, Brazil, and China are five times larger than Hoover.) NT2 exports 95 percent of its power to Thailand, with the remaining 5 percent consumed at home in Laos. Its gross annual sales approach $240 million. No one can doubt the project's value to the Lao economy: NT2 accounts for roughly 5 percent of Lao PDR's gross domestic product.


Motor howling, sun glaring, we leave the expanse of the lake and enter what appears to be a cove. But it is not a cove: the water narrows between encroaching stands of flooded trees and winds into the forest. We follow. This is the channel of the Nam Theun, carving its way eastward. Soon we pass a checkpoint maintained by the WMPA, part of the security apparatus for the watershed. A speedboat is tied to the crude dock, but no one is visible in the shack it serves. We neither stop nor slow down.

Raptors perch in a high treetop. Crested serpent eagles. Commonplace. Like red-tailed hawks at home. Robichaud gives them a sidelong glance, no more. Then a shrill call pierces even the drone of the engine. We scan the shoreline eagerly but cannot locate the source and so keep going. Minutes later, Robichaud waves urgently to the boatman to stop. He has seen two birds, nearly as big as pigeons, in trees on the left bank. The boatman cuts the clamorous motor, and the breeze of movement stops. Heat pools around the boat. An insect whine rushes out from the forest to embrace us. The birds Robichaud has spotted have reddish bills and a suggestion of white on the wings. Possibly dusky broadbills, new to the protected area. But no, he says, lowering his binoculars. Just dollarbirds. No big deal.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Last Unicorn by William deBuys. Copyright © 2015 William deBuys. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Prologue 3

Maps

Laos, Vietnam, and Selected Provinces 5

Nakai-Nam Theun National Protected Area 6

1 Entry 7

2 To the Far Nam Nyang 97

3 Circling Back: Nakai, Again 227

4 Upriver: The Poung of the Nam Mon 263

Epilogue 325

Acknowledgments 330

Appendix: Pronunciation, Nomenclature, and Acronyms 333

Notes 336

Index 343

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